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The deadly politics of living on death row

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DEAD RUN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DENNIS STOCKTON AND AMERICA'S ONLY MASS ESCAPE FROM DEATH ROW By Joe Jackson and William Burke Times Books

Dennis Stockton was a habitual criminal from shortly after his birth in 1940 until the state of Virginia put him to sleep permanently in 1995.

Although not well known outside of Virginia and North Carolina during his lifetime, Stockton is quite likely to become famous posthumously as a result of this superb book by two Virginia Beach journalists.

Describing the book briefly is difficult. It is part biography and part autobiography of Stockton (because so many of his own newspaper columns from prison are reprinted). It also includes short biographies of other inmates entering Stockton's life, an expos of the prison system, an inside look at journalism as practiced at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and a legal brief for a man convicted of a murder probably committed by somebody else.

Burke, the newspaper editor who contacted Stockton in a Virginia prison after a mass escape from the death row there, and Jackson, the reporter working for Burke who turned up seemingly exonerating information about a homicide supposedly committed by Stockton, have woven the disparate parts of this story into a coherent, compelling whole.

The setting is Mecklenberg Prison, a southern Virginia facility that was the pride of the penal system just a couple of decades ago. Shortly after Stockton arrived on Mecklenberg's death row in 1983, he became involved in a plot to escape.

Although Stockton had little formal education, he had a high intelligence quotient, common sense, and street smarts. He knew a death-row escape attempt had never been successful even in the country's ancient, rickety prisons. So, Stockton had no reason to believe the plot would play out in supposedly escape-proof Mecklenberg. But Stockton thought neither he nor the other death-row inhabitants stood to lose much if they failed.

Eventually, Stockton decided to drop out of the escape attempt, thinking his murder conviction might be overturned on the basis of new evidence. But he helped the plotter in various ways and also started keeping a daily diary.

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